Despite an alarming 40 percent COVID-19 test-positivity rate in parts of southern Manitoba, some churches in that Canadian province are still gathering in defiance of public orders. In Steinbach, 45 miles from Winnipeg, law enforcement officials are issuing fines, and a ministerial group is urging churches to suspend worship. Yet several large congregations insist that in-person gatherings are “crucial” and are being held safely.
Church of God Restoration: ‘This is not about a virus’
Church of God Restoration near Steinbach was fined $5,000 after more than 100 people gathered on November 22. Although even drive-in services are now outlawed, the church met again yesterday, in a parking lot. As police tried to tow a van that was blocking traffic, Pastor Tobias Tissen said, “You’re big-time interfering with God right now.” Tissen, who attended a recent anti-mask protest, told attendees, “We’re made to come together to worship. Being alone at home and watching a virtual service does not replace worship.”
On Facebook, the church reminded attendees to stay in their vehicles with windows rolled up. “This won’t be like the parking lots of Costco, Walmart, and the government-owned liquor stores where people freely mingle,” the post states. “Make no mistake, this is not about a virus.”
Pastor Heinrich Hildebrandt, also with Church of God Restoration, says, “There must be an allowable expression of faith that is deemed essential while we are allowing the sale of products at establishments that exist solely for the sale of alcohol, coffee, donuts, cannabis, and fast food.” Canadians, he adds, are “guaranteed the right to religious freedom and peaceful assembly.”
In a statement, the Church of God denomination says it’s “not asking for special treatment, just fair treatment.”
Lives Are at Stake, Say Officials, Ministry Group
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, says, “These orders are not here to restrict your right to worship; these orders are here to save lives.” With such high coronavirus rates, he adds, gatherings put everyone at risk.
City councilor Shawn Nason says it’s disappointing that local churches aren’t complying. “They have a strong social media presence, they stream their services, so I’m very unclear why they need to sidestep the spirit and intent” of the order, he says. “It’s troubling that we can’t just pause for two weeks…or however long it takes to get this (virus) under control.”
Sgt. Paul Manaigre of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police says “hospitals are full” and medical personnel “are getting burned out.”
Officials have the backing of at least 23 local pastors, who penned an open letter urging churches to obey authorities. COVID-19 health orders “in no way contravene our ability to obey and worship God,” they write. “They are not anti-faith; they are pro-life.” The pastors acknowledge freedom is being limited but add it’s “for the greater good of our society (Romans 14:6).” They conclude: “We believe that the sacrifices asked of us at this time—mask-wearing and physical distancing, for example—pale in comparison to the sacrifice Christ made on our behalf.”
The Rev. Walter Fast, who heads the ministerial group, says he’s recently lost two congregants to COVID and “aches” at the suspension of in-person pastoral care. “We are doing our best to urge our congregants to be sober-minded,” he says. “You have no idea how hard it is to get prepared in a week’s time for a graveside funeral with five people.”